back nowadays, it seems impossible that no one foresaw the disaster that
was to occur at the end of this decade. The village absolutely foresaw its
future as the metropolis of the grain belt, and preserved a cheerful and
jingoistic certainty that they lived in the best place in the best country
in the world.
George F. Hamlin, writing
nearly 20 years later from his home in New York City, described Penn Yan
as it was in 1850. He remembered "three or four stores" at the
head of Main Street, and Morris F. Sheppard's stone residence, among some
others above the Court House.
"The Penn Yan
Academy was a two-story unpainted wooden structure abandoned and disgraceful,"
he wrote. He was speaking of the first Academy, which had been held in Eliah
Holcomb's old hotel building, just south of Court Street on the east side
of Main. Then came the residences of Judge Samuel S. Ellsworth and of Nelson
Tunnicliff (on the corner of Clinton Street), and the Curtis Hill from Main
Street east, which the village children took over on snowy days for coasting.
Dr. William Oliver's house stood on the west side of Main.
Below Chapel Street
were the residences of Myron Hamlin, Leander Reddy and Judge William M.
Oliver, in a row on the west side of Main. Across the street were George
Benham's house, the Yates County Bank and the American Hotel. North of Benham's
was the boarding house kept by Sarah Cobb and her daughters; the dam behind
Benham's, used to run his tannery, of course froze over in the winter and
was a favorite place for skating.
By 1856 a meat market
called Wyman's stood on the west side of Main Street about halfway between
Elm Street and Maiden Lane. The block was bought by Myron Hamlin, extended
to the rear about 50 feet and outfitted in a manner then considered palatial.
The location, said Cleveland, was thought to be "pretty well out of
town for dry goods," as it was the farthest north of any of them.
In the same year a
balloon ascension was made from the vacant lot just north of Wyman's, which
was surrounded by a high wooden fence and reached north as far as Maiden
Lane. People remembered the row of barrells along the walk, filled with
iron filings, which were used to make the gas. The balloon ascended quite
slowly and just missed hitting Wyman's north wall, but otherwise the whole
affair was a rousing success.
All during this period,
ominous signs appeared but perhaps seemed of little local importance. Three
of the village's four Protestant congregations (there were no others until
St. Michael's was organized in 1855) had split in two over the issue of
slavery and its abolition. The antislavery Methodists built the Wesleyan
Meeting House in 1851; the majority of the Presbyterians left with their
minister Ovid Minor to start a Congregationalist Church; and the Episcopalians
split into two groups, one of which started to build a new church which
was never finished until after the congregation was reunited and they all
moved into it. Only the Baptists, whose split over slavery had happened
on the national level, were exempt locally from the uproar.
Many of the "best"
residents of Penn Yan clung to the old Whig party until the Republicans
were founded in 1856. The new party's first presidential candidate, John
C. Fremont, actually carried the county that fall, and the rapid evolution
of Yates County into the most Republican in the state of New York came to
pass. A bitter division opened between the Republicans and the Irish, who
nearly all voted Democratic and were furthermore "wet" in a place
where temperance had long drawn a great many followers. Temperance and abolition
were the favorite local reform movements, and naturally the descendants
of early settlers were very uncomfortable with the boisterous Irish laborers
that swarmed into town after 1850. Both sides shipped arms to Kansas later
in the decade, in a precursor of the larger but not much more acrimonious
conflict to follow.
A severe nationwide
depression struck in 1857, resulting in a run on the Yates County Bank that
destroyed it, and with it the fortunes of a number of local people, not
least of whom was the Bank's president, William M. Oliver; everyone agreed
that the Bank's failure was none of his doing, but his property still had
to be sold up to pay off his debts. The place had still not recovered from
the loss of its only banking house when after Lincoln's victory in November,
1860, rumbles of war began to be reported from South Carolina. The president-elect
of course carried Yates County; he was elected nationally by a minority
of the electorate, having beaten three other candidates. He had not run
on an abolitionist platform, but local activists nevertheless confidently
expected the institution of slavery to destroy itself.